Cheers and applause filled Amherst County High School’s gymnasium, a typical sound during sporting events, but on a recent late May evening it marked educators’ academic achievements.
The Amherst County School Board during a special gathering honored more than two-dozen retirees marking the end of their careers, as well as those employees who reached 25 years in the county’s public school division. The friendly exchanges, well-wishes and rocking chairs presented as gifts to the retirees, which they sat in an as colleagues shared words about their contributions to public education, was a welcomed returning tradition following a virtual celebration last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Derrick Brown, the high school’s principal, recognized retiring culinary teacher Robert Swift, whose work experience began in 1968 at age 14. “Mr. Swift has spent practically his entire life working in food service and it definitely shows in the way that he trains and teaches our students and prepares them for their next phase in life,” Brown said.
Brown said while Swift has many travel plans in retirement, one trip he hopes to see is Swift come back to ACHS from time to time. “Please bring your chef hat and spatula,” Brown added with a grin.
Kim Klein, Amherst County Public Schools’ child nutrition program supervisor, honored Patricia Royer, a cafeteria worker at ACHS who has served 18 years in the division doing various jobs and “everything imaginable in the kitchen.” Klein said Royer is funny, well-liked and very dedicated, rarely ever missing a day of work, and students enjoy interacting with her in the lunch line.
“We’re going to miss her laughter,” Klein said. “She’s always good to lift us up on any day we needed it.”
Amherst Middle School Principal Kelly Holmes honored two retiring educators, Carolyn Turner and Cheryl Thomas. Holmes said Turner, who has worked as an instructional assistant and in-school suspension coordinator, blessed both county schools with her service. Turner always was willing to offer a helping hand and had a gift for building relationships with students, Holmes said.
Thomas worked 33 years at Amherst Middle School and is a proud graduate of the former Central High School when it was located in the same building, Holmes said.
“Her love for helping others be successful and making life better is observed each day she walks through the doors of Amherst Middle School,” Holmes said.
Lynette Smith, a Monelison Middle School teacher, was recognized for dedicating 37 years to the profession and serving as a mentor to many new teachers, as well as coaching archery. A colleague described Smith as a kind and compassionate educator with a deep love for teaching.
“She’s been a leader in our building,” Monelison Principal Lea Gray said.
Amherst Elementary School Principal Jennifer Crews honored retiring educator Meg Racanelli, who spent 15 years in the division. Crews said Racanelli also was her professor at Liberty University and has dedicated herself to education.
“Not a day goes by that she doesn’t stop to speak, check in or just provide an uplifting story when we need it the most,” Crews said.
Amelon Elementary School Principal Jay Sales honored reading specialist LeeAnn James and special education teacher Kathy Saunders. Sales said James was a major encouragement following his wife’s death from cancer when she stopped him in the hallway and asked with sincerity how he was doing. “That’s meaningful stuff that transcends beyond the classroom…” Sales said.
Sales also described Saunders’ “flare for professionalism” and advocating for students.
“The pandemic and your last year as a professional educator, it challenged us in many unique ways, but I can tell you this, not only in our realm of special education but in our realm of general education, you made sure that everyone was held accountable, including myself,” Sales said to Saunders, adding he is grateful to have worked alongside her.
Central Elementary School Principal Derek Adam honored three retiring educators at the school: Sylvia Martin, Cynthia Mikeshell and Sue Ellen Petchul. He said Petchul helped him grown as a principal and Mikeshell, a speech language pathologist with 42 years in the division, has served a handful of schools and worked with dozens of students during the school year.
Martin always was willing to pitch in whenever a need arose and embodied patience, Adam said. “When you think of ‘every child, every day’ that’s Sylvia Martin,” Adam said, referring to the division’s mission statement.
Wayne Cocke, the division’s supervisor of maintenance and operations, was honored for his 12 years of service. Assistant Superintendent William Wells said Cocke served under three superintendents and oversaw projects including roof and HVAC replacements, lighting upgrades, restroom renovations and installations of vestibules to ensure more school schools. The projects totaled more than $28 million, Wells said, adding Cocke has been on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to handle issues with the facilities that arise.
“If you don’t safe schools, if you don’t have dry schools, if you don’t have air conditioning or heat, it’s really hard for teachers to do their job and students to learn,” Wells said in describing Cocke’s importance to the division.
Rhonda Campbell, supervisor of transportation, recognized Sandra Santinio and Hilda Stoker, two workers in the department leaving. “It was not just her job — it was her heart,” Campbell said of Santino’s many years of service.
Campbell said she will miss Stoker’s smile, kindness and generosity and joked if she could clone Stoker, many counties would take advantage.
Madison Heights Elementary School Principal Marvin McGinnis paid tribute to retiring teacher Barbara Daniszewski, complimenting her “I can do it” mindset of helping students grow, excel and become stronger individuals while strengthening social and academic bonds. He said he would miss her joyful dress-up performances of historical figures with costumes she made and praised her work ethic during the pandemic’s many challenges.
“You refused to let it affect you and your students. You refused to let the shining light of guidance go dull,” McGinnis said. “When things became silent, you entered with a roar.”
He said he would never forget her response when asked if she was interested in switching to remote teaching during the pandemic. “No, I have to be there for my babies,” he said of the answer. “I have to be there behind them and make sure they are learning.”